We’ve all been there – that small panic when utterly lost, a sudden illness in a strange land or after 17 hours of hot, dusty travel an unexpected kindness makes clear why we call ourselves members of the human race.
If you’re a travel journalist, you’ve been in unexpected difficulties numerous times in some of Earth’s iconic locations. If you’re an active traveler, exploring and taking risks, getting out of one’s comfort zone is taken for granted. Getting back in often requires help – unexpected kindness.
The Annamite Mountains divide Vietnam’s one thousand mile strip of mountains and beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The south is tropical year round, but northern winters can be cold and damp. Political upheaval in the late 18th century led to the Nguyen Dynasty’s triumphant unification of the northern and southern factions in the early 1800s.
Yet political upheaval seems to have been the natural order often until 1975. The end of America’s Vietnam War allowed the Vietnamese to concentrate on what they enjoy the most — doing business. Whether it’s a BMW auto dealership in Hanoi or a convenience store in a rowboat on a bay, the Vietnamese are capitalists. It’s part of the throb of real life in Vietnam.
Part of life is also stunning natural beauty, crazy traffic, the silence of fog on a bay and the iridescence of a fresh pearl just shucked from its shell. One trip is not enough. This exploration highlights five key destinations in the north.
“The idea of the Laos government is to become the battery of Southeast Asia,” Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, Time, 12/09/2010
According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, where as in reality it is not. So does life. It changes continuously, becomes something or other from moment to moment. (The Buddhist Concept of Impermanence)
Is Laos in the 19th century racing towards the 21st? Not since the 1970’s has this most relaxed of southeast Asian societies faced the prospect of monumental changes globalization is bringing to this ancient land. In a series of articles for Suite101 and the Examiner, I explore these shifting forces even as I experience centuries of tradition.
Forested mountains and ethnic villages may dominate photos of northern Laos, but it’s the region’s swift rivers an energy hungry southeast Asia covets.
In the misty mountain provincial capital of Luang Namtha in northern Laos, a mere 50 miles from the Chinese border, a traveler would not normally expect to enjoy a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, stuffed with banana, while sipping a shot of Lao Lao.
In the far north of Laos, overlooking the swift flowing Nam Oh River as it cuts a path through towering forest covered limestone mountains, the Nong Kiau Riverside Resort and Restaurant melts into the lush countryside.
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been on the Asian trade routes to Europe for millennium. Southeast Asia was adept at fusing earlier European, Chinese and Japanese culinary influences and a century of Western colonial cuisine. The kitchens at restaurants of today’s tourist route destinations continue to preserve the past as well as innovate.
Laotian cuisine, like the nation, is much more than that land between Thailand and Vietnam. Neither as sweet nor spicy as its neighbors, the dishes of Laos are multi-layered creations of herbs, greens, meats, fish, vegetables and spices not used in Western cooking. Yum Kai Tom is one such dish that’s both easy to master as well as being quintessential Laos.
There’s no lack of fine restaurants in Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Once the royal and spiritual capital of several southeast Asian kingdoms, Luang Prabang epitomizes tropical post-colonial romanticism. The historic core rests high on a peninsula and restaurants take advantage of the spectacular mountain scenery of northern Laos. The Arthouse Cafe, on Kingkitsarath Road, is no exception.
Luang Prabang’s popular and excellent Tamarind Restaurant makes a terrific Khao Gam.
Stuffed Lemongrass is delicious, as the lemongrass permeates the meat with its citrus flavor.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has no lack of interesting dining opportunities from a vibrant street food scene to the legendary Mekong River at sunset providing a stunning backdrop for a relaxing dinner at the Kong View Restaurant.
A tuk-tuk full of saffron robed monks pass by the entrance to Ban Vilaylac. Their Wat is directly across the street. Appropriate location since Ban Vilaylac’s potted garden entrance bridges centuries of traditional Vientiane and French colonial Laos cuisine. Next door, reservations for either lunch or dinner are hard to come by at Makphet Restaurant, yet there are no celebrity chefs, yet the lines of appreciative diners can be long.
Much overlooked, Laos north central town of Oudomxai is surrounded by stunning scenery to view while enjoying good Laotian cuisine at The Charming Lao Hotel.
In a building as old as many bistros in Paris, under ceiling fans stirring the languid tropical air, guests of the Dibuk Restaurant in Thailand’s old Phuket Town can spend time dining with the Indian Ocean lapping nearby.
The Look-in Restaurant, just off Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road, is not on most visitors’ tourist map – not yet.
Tom Kha Gai, Thailand’s incomparable coconut soup with chicken and flavored with galangal is a Look-in knockout.
The finest restaurant in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi is also its most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, three-story French Art Nouveau townhouse.
There’s a quiet side to Cambodia’s bustling Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, on the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm.
The Italian Market/Queen Village district, to any resident of Philadelphia, is inexorably morphing into a little Southeast Asia. A stroll through these historic colonial neighborhoods provides visual evidence of Asian grocery stores, restaurants and professional offices catering to this increasing community. The area around 11th Street and Washington Avenue includes a sizable number of Asian businesses and one very good Vietnamese fine dining restaurant, Le Viet.
Set in an unassuming strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, Kinnaree Thai French Cuisine balances traditional Thai dishes with centuries old French influences.
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From post-revolutionary obscurity, the once ancient kingdom of Champasak is at the center of southern Laos’ eco-tourism incentive.
Cheap airfares, especially from Australia, and even cheaper cost of living attracted budget seekers of alternative vacations in the early 1990’s to the sleepy isolated islands of the Siphandon.
Just 25 miles from the Cambodian border, Laos’ Mekong spreads up to 8 miles wide creating a delta-like region, the Siphandon, sheltering human and wildlife.
Don Deth and Don Khone epitomize the Western vision of a tropical existence, sleeping in a hammock with mosquito netting, playing the guitar at night, picking fruit and spending as little money as possible.
Purple sticky rice: this nutty deep purple variety of Laos’ ubiquitous grain is usually reserved for desserts. Although a festive addition to dinner and delicious even when not sweetened, I was reminded of my favorite recipe for Purple Sticky Rice in Coconut Sauce.
You can read about all these topics in my latest articles on Suite101:
Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos provide an abundance of eateries from street vendors to luxury hotel venues like Bangkok’s Centara Grand Hotel’s 55th/56th floor Red Sky dining room and Sky Bar.
Yet in remote villages, some reachable only by boat, tools invented centuries ago are still used for preparing important aspects of traditional cooking such as sticky rice, eaten at every meal.
Grains of sticky rice are sun dried and then the hard hull must be broken and sifted away using large woven baskets. The young mother of this household gave me permission to film her children providing the power to operate the hull cracking tool.
The abundance of South East Asia’s food supply is not lost on its restaurants.
In the Laotian capital, Vientiane’s Kong View provides beautiful vistas of the Mekong River while preparing excellent dishes such as salt grilled river fish.
On a quiet street within the historic French colonial core of Vientiane, reservations may be necessary on weekends for Dining at Ban Vilaylac.